The eRate appears to be working, according to the first-ever study of the federal program that helps connect schools and libraries to the internet.

The study, called “The eRate in America: A Tale of Four Cities,” examined the impact the eRate has had on four large urban school districts: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. These districts serve a combined 800,000 students, most of whom live at or below the poverty line.

Jim Davis, director of information systems management for Detroit Public Schools, said that before the eRate, his district did not have the $36 million it would take to wire 840 classrooms.

“We are state-funded, and the per-pupil funding has not increased in five years,” Davis said. After receiving eRate discounts, the number of schools in Detroit with internet connections increased from three to 264.

“We did not stop at wiring our classrooms,” Davis said. “We tried to make technology available to children who did not have it at home.” Community organizations used the eRate to establish public computer labs throughout the city, he said.

The eRate, part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, provides up to $2.25 billion each year in the form of 20 percent to 90 percent discounts on telecommunications services, with the deepest discounts going to the poorest schools. The eRate alone has provided internet access for children in more than one million classrooms, according to the federal government.

Funded by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, the study was released by the Benton Foundation and the Educational Development Center’s Center for Children and Technology.

Despite its success in connecting so many classrooms to the internet, the eRate has not been trouble-free.

The report said the four cities experienced problems with vendors because of complicated bidding, payment, and reimbursement processes. The time constraints of wiring the schools according to the annual timeline of the eRate caused contractors in all four cities to run out of qualified labor. The districts also had to find other funding sources to pay for electrical upgrades and hardware that the eRate does not cover.

Participants at a roundtable discussion held by the Benton Foundation said many educators are fearful that the eRate soon will disappear, and therefore they feel they should not rely on it.

William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), understands these concerns. “We’ve got to have technology in our classrooms,” he said. “But a lot of people in Washington and around the country are questioning that.”

Linda Roberts, educational technology director for the U.S. Department of Education, agreed, recalling the political struggle it took to establish the eRate program.

“Everything we do in technology is placed in a different category than everything else in education,” Roberts said. Teachers are never asked if they are fully trained and capable of teaching specific subjects like they are when it comes to technology, she said.

Kennard said, “We’ve got to look at the eRate as an ongoing political process.”

That’s largely what motivated the groups to conduct the study. Contributors to the discussion said that few people outside of education, including parents and seniors, know what the eRate is—yet they are the citizens who influence the politicians.

“I’m struck by the number of people who have never heard of the eRate,” said Margaret Honey, director of the Center for Children and Technology. “The whole question of documenting impact is growing larger and larger.”

“It’s not enough to have four case studies,” Roberts said. But this study does provide some compelling evidence that the eRate has been an incredible vehicle for providing technology to American schools, she added: “I think it’s been the single most important bill of all the education bills.”

Technology is a teaching tool similar to a textbook, said Mary Cross of the American Federation of Teachers, and the eRate only creates access to the technology. Legislators should realize that wiring schools alone will not make test scores go up.

“It’s like saying, ‘You have this thing called a textbook, [and] once everyone gets one, tests scores will go up,'” Cross said.

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

Federal Communications Commission
http://www.fcc.gov

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

The Benton Foundation
http://www.benton.org

The Joyce Foundation
http://www.joycefdn.org